But the immediate economic climate may be less important than the deeper political culture in explaining the differences in these states. Arguably the single most important factor explaining why these two bands of swing states have switched roles is that the Rust Belt has proven more receptive to Obama’s relentless effort to paint Romney as a conscienceless corporate raider for his years at Bain Capital.
Veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is advising an independent pro-Obama super PAC, says that Romney has been left especially vulnerable by the region’s experience of industrial decline—of hearing managers say “these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back,” to borrow from the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, who campaigned for Obama last week in Iowa and Ohio.
“The reaction to Romney as a rich guy out for rich guys is stronger and deeper in the Rust Belt,” Garin says. “The Rust Belt narrative is about people who closed down factories and moved them some place else, and it’s a story that people associate with Romney.” Largely because that argument has proved so powerful, Obama is running much better with working-class whites in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan than elsewhere in the country—and that difference represents his margin of advantage in these critical states.
But that imagery isn’t as resonant in Sun Belt states that don’t have the same history of industrial decline (except for Southern textile mills) and whose culture, especially in the Mountain West, is shaped more by risk-taking in pursuit of the next big thing. “Look around here, everything’s new,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., as he stood this week at a Romney organizing rally on the rooftop patio of a trendy bar in the shadow of Denver’s gleaming Coors Field baseball stadium. “The [Bain] attacks are a dead argument here, because people have been successful by … staking out on their own and creating a craft brewery, a tech company, a small manufacturing company.”
Conversely, the Sun Belt states generally have proven more responsive to the Romney argument that Obama is an irresponsible big-spending liberal who has dangerously bloated both the national debt and Washington’s reach. The Democrats who win in these Sun Belt states tend to be cautious about pushing an activist role for government, usually narrowing their efforts to a few key priorities, like education and infrastructure, clearly tied to economic development.
On questions from health care to financial and environmental regulation, Obama has expanded government’s responsibilities more ambitiously. “In Colorado, the swing voters are skeptical of government and that’s why they find themselves wanting to vote against Obama,” says Dick Wadhams, the former chairman of the state Republican Party.
Those small-government arguments often hurt Democrats in the Midwest too, but there Obama is shielded by a specific government intervention not relevant in the Sun Belt: the popularity of the auto bailout. Romney aides privately acknowledge that the bailout, which the GOP nominee opposed, represents a major hurdle for them across the industrial Midwest.
The race looks close enough that any of the targeted Sun Belt or Rust Belt states might fall to either man. (On the list of nine targets, North Carolina is probably safest for Romney, while Wisconsin and Nevada may be Obama’s best bets.) Yet in many respects, the two regions have branched off into utterly distinctive contests.
In the Rust Belt, Romney is battling to undermine Obama’s improved performance among blue-collar whites. In the Sun Belt, Romney already enjoys preponderant leads among those working-class whites, and the competition is centered on white-collar whites, particularly women—with Obama also facing the challenge of turning out his minority supporters. In these frenzied final days, both campaigns are now constantly adjusting the dials of their message, trying to find a frequency that will connect with the few wavering voters left in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt alike.
National Journal researcher Stephanie Czekalinski contributed